Mourning Famous Strangers
In March of 2008, I got a text from a family member. It was one of those short, blunt but well meaning notes that assumes you are up to speed with world events at all times. It was news directly, it seemed, focused at me because of my particular connection to the subject of the message.
"So sorry to hear about Anthony Minghella."
Like many people when reading something vaguely cryptic and potentially awful my mind jumped to polarized imaginings. The first option was denial of the worst and leapt straight into benign possibilities. This process is insanely faster than your ability to open a browser and find out for yourself. In fact, there is even some nudging hope buried in your consciousness that if you do imagine a more benign outcome it may come true.
"Did Anthony's movie fall through? Was he fired? Maybe, um, maybe he broke his leg skiing..." Once that nano-computing configures just enough badness to justify receiving a text about it you frantically get to whatever electronic device can get you the meta data as quickly as possible. Usually I misspell the name in my heart-pounding urgency to know but Google will sort that out for you as title after title of Mr. Minghella's death notice scrolls down beneath the "did you mean?" query by the search engine.
As I quickly click the first article that seems certified not to be bullshit, I read perhaps a few sentences before that overwhelming dread seizes up my heart and body and the need to tell someone becomes paramount. This need is two-fold. Primarily you want someone close to you to know that you have been devastated and things aren't okay from that second going forward. But also in this day and age: getting information late seems irresponsible when it's so important.
Like a child reporting some hurtful incident, the tears don't begin to fall nor the voice fail me until the uttering of the news to my wife. Of course the concern washing over her expression is less for Mr. Minghella than for me as she knows how deep this is going to cut. "Over-sensitive" is an abused adjective used to describe me from an early age. My thick-skin is very selective in its usage and has too many holes to be considered armor.
Needless to say, any man who has a wall-sized, expensively framed imported poster of 'The English Patient' in his living room has sent a message what this filmmaker means to him. Alongside 'The Talented Mr. Ripley' poster are bookshelves with his plays, screenplays, books and stacks of various editions of all his movies. But more than that was my endless referencing of the man himself. I couldn't even quote Anthony without going into an impersonation of him. I did this so often I could actually improvise as him to no one's great delight.
What followed was some deep and serious mourning. He was gone. I would never hear a new and beautiful insight into this world from Anthony again. His soft, elegant phraseology and poetic perception of film and music were now etched permanently into the past. The word count was now final. When I wanted to seek comfort in his company I would need to go backwards in my search and no longer forward.
The nadir of this experience was one excruciating phone call with a concerned loved one. A friend of the Minghella's in England knew me and my devotion and was sending condolences via this person. Of course this was only fuel for the fire as I drowned in misery to the point I was stopped with the statement, "This can't be about Anthony Minghella."
The switch was hit and pain turned into rage and resentment. How could this person not know me and what he meant? How dare they psycho-analyze me in this moment in order to not comprehend my pain? I had turned that notion over and over in my own heart and mind and came to no other conclusion that it was, indeed, simply true mourning for the news itself. I had lost a dear friend.
It is important at this point to state clearly: I have never, ever met nor interacted directly in any way with Anthony Minghella in my life.
The reason for this confession is because in reflection I have spent years truly wondering how this one-sided love affair had come into being. How had I created such a fully realized connection to a man and his art when he had done nothing to return my affection? Such questioning gained resonance after others far more directly in relationship with me had come to fatal ends and my reaction wasn't nearly as devastated.
Was I sociopathic? Had I become some media-imbued junkie who had lost the tether to reality with too much time in front of screens and not other people? I had always been somewhat critical of people's inordinate reaction to celebrity deaths. Wailing hordes creating murals and monuments as they flung themselves onto the ground in their despair. "Um, guys, how about saving some of that sorrow for the people who are actually in your lives?" I would mildly scold in my mind.
But here I was. Just like them. I didn't create any physical tributes or wailing walls because I didn't need to. Anthony was everywhere I looked. I even tried to write an appreciation but each completion felt it was lacking the true depth of what I felt and it stayed locked in a Word file on my computer.
In this past year of 2016 we saw what felt like a stampede of talented icons practically jumping into the Reapers arms. Alan Rickman, Prince, David Bowie, George Michael, Carrie Fisher, Gene Wilder, Leonard Cohen... it felt like it was speeding up towards the end. One could barely process what impact a loss had incurred before the info-sphere was pummeling you with yet another. It was hard not to read the tea-leaves a bit and ask "Do they know something I don't? Why is everyone dying??!"
Due to this vast migration to the after-life there seems to be some cultural debate as to what the nature of these losses mean. To us as a society but also individuals. Were those mourning these icons co-opting their fame as their personal misery? Was anyone really expecting another great performance by Gene Wilder or were they truly grieving for his family? What is the socially accepetable level of grief? While those are all worthy questions, I'll leave them to others.
I'd rather focus on the link between the artists and those who ingest their art to their souls. Those whom's immersion was either life-long or dedicated to such a degree that their personal history is not replete without the love affair they developed.
Beyond the mere enjoyment or simple diversion artists and their work can provide is another level of interaction. This goes beyond the trivial or glib reception of a work that is one of many in a flooded and noisy marketplace bombarding you constantly for your attention. It goes beyond "this is my jam" or "oh, yeah, that was a really good movie" to something more resembling a communion.
I speak of that moment when you first catch eyes or hears of something you don't truly understand at first but know you are spellbound to go after it. It may be confusing at first, perhaps even anger you, but it will linger in your experience afterwards. Like love at first sight, you won't truly understand the attraction for years to come or perhaps will never fully comprehend. Embedded in the work is a message. It may be an overt declarative like punk rock or perhaps more elusive like the subconscious imagery of David Lynch.
Any artist, whether they sit alone in front of a page or strum that first note on a guitar is sending something out. A desire to be heard, seen or felt. They are channeling the chaotic messages of the universe into some form of signal. Whether it's to say "I feel this way...do you?" or the more disruptive "Fuck this, you with me?" As Alan Ginsberg once stated, "That you recognize (it) instantly as being some form of subjective truth that has an objective reality to it because somebody has realized it."
Risking my own glibness here, perhaps it can summed as the desire to feel less alone.
Aloneness in this case is not to be confused with physical isolation. I mean alone as in that deep, inner sense you aren't understood or conversely you don't understand the world around you. You or it don't make sense to each other and in between is a gulf of anxiety and a desire to make order of it besides through conventional means (ie job, success, marriage, etc). When a poet, musician, artist or film-maker speaks out through their own void and reaches out to you...you have an instinct to reach back.
It's that reaching back, that yearning to connect with the artist, that expands this examination of loss into the deeper reaches of understanding. When one adopts an artist's work into their heart and mind they are performing a sort of assimilation. Those artists are rewiring our brains to a way of understanding. We incorporate that signal into our systems like learning a new language. Something just feels right to us and it will affect how we think and feel about things going forward. This sort of call and response is on-going with each new work by the artist and the receivers reaction to it. It is, in fact, a relationship.
Along the way there may be a divorce. Or perhaps simply one grows out of this phase of adoration as their own art matures beyond the very signal they first experienced. Regardless, during this stage of interaction a person is changed forever in some small or great way depending on how deeply immersed they were with the artist.
So much so the very reference of an artist can tell you a lot about a person and is, in fact, one of the most common ice-breakers we have in modern society. Just check any social media profile, dating app "about me" section or eavesdrop on two people getting to know each other.
"Favorite music?"..."Favorite song?"..."Favorite movie?"...'Favorite actor?"
The reason is because art says something about you far deeper than simply, "I like the flavor of strawberries" or "Blue is my favorite color". These artistic preferences can bring us together or drive us apart but they aid and inform our sense of self and how we interact in the world. If, say, someone on a date declares "I went through a very serious David Bowie phase in college" the response to that will impact much of that interaction going forward. "Ugh, I hate Bowie" will probably end the evening. "There's no way you are a bigger Bowie fan than me" probably means there's going to be some 'Ziggy Stardust' in the background later that night.
More poignantly, art is there for you when so much around you lacks meaning or sense. This is never more true than when great loss occurs. Whether it's a death, essential break-up or some massive failure there is usually a song, movie or book that informs that period. A voice outside your own expressing what you cannot bear to in those moments. In time when healing and perspective are gained that artist and their work are now embedded in your system in a powerful way. The rhythm of their voice was, if ever so briefly, joined with your own.
That is why when you hear a song it can bring you back to a time in your life. It's connected through your heart and wired to your brain. You feel something. You watch an old movie you adored and regardless of its quality it will recall a period and your feelings about it. Is it any wonder when news of that artist's demise reaches you that some level of devastation can occur? That not only are you in the grips of understanding the actual meaning of it but you are also triggering complex, deep emotions embedded in a life of mutual passage together. Their voice that you shared inside you is now gone besides what it left behind.
Duncan Jones, son of David Bowie and now a respected film-maker ('Moon', 'World of Warcraft') was recently interviewed during the press tour for his new movie. When news emerged about his father's passing, Jones receded from the media and kept his company close. When queried about the subject he had a very interesting thing to say. "I'm obviously affected by someone that I know passing away. Everyone else if affected by someone else they know. They're just as important to them and how they see them but we're talking about two different people."
It is an important distinction. It separates the delusion of familiarity from the correspondence through art.
I have spent the formative years of my life exploring acting as a vocation. As I've grown and matured into what that actually means it has introduced me to many an artist both dead and alive. Often it starts as an invitation. Someone you know who says, "Todd, I can't believe you haven't read Tom Stoppard! You'll LOVE Stoppard. Start with this". Then once that strange, new language begins to reorganize itself into your system you seek more, want more of it and thus the conversation begins.
You begin to fall in love with them. You want more time with them. You find yourself thinking about them during your day. The need to digest their voice and vision can expand your perspective and your library. The more often these love affairs consume you the broader your own viewpoint becomes. They are in you.
If this affair begins post-mortem in say a Tolstoy, one knows they have a set amount of material for this conversation. One can see the finality from the outset and pace their acquaintance. But if one discovers John Patrick Shanley they might imagine a long and continually new relationship going forward. Which can be quite disruptive if one gets that sad 'RIP' text mid love affair.
In acting one of the main precepts of just about any technique is the notion of "as if". It is the seemingly simple notion that the actor put themselves in the circumstance of the character's situation. If the situation requires the actor to be afraid for their lives they employ a hopefully rich imagination and act "as if" that too was now their situation. While it is a basic concept there are many traps along the way where one can separate themselves from accepting the deep, personal consequence of the circumstances and substitute a shallower, safer conception of the reality. In essence, they aren't taking the scenario into their heart but locking it up into the formulations of the mind. They aren't being honest.
In order to have a rich, deep understanding of the complex emotional reality of one's character (or their partner's) they have to submit to the core truth of what is happening. If a scene requires someone to fall in love with another character and then fall to pieces to when their heart is broken on some level they have to let that pain enter the body. They have to allow the mind to believe it in that moment. The way to get there can be complex or simple depending on the artist and the technique.
What can't be escaped here is to the essential point I've been exploring.
That your feelings don't compartmentalize themselves into the rational, bracketed categories of how much you know a person. Every person you meet is subjected to your impression of them, gets contextualized and mostly lives in the memory of your experiences. We are all, in one way or another, an idea to someone else. A notion, an interpreted experience, a series of feelings and dialogues bound together by love and interactions. Who and what we let in is often entirely up to us.
I invited Anthony Minghella in. I trusted him. When I was seeking beauty I would divine from his words something now familiar and idyllic. It was a recharging of sorts for me. I spent hours listening to him, pausing in reflection and then adding his perspective to mine own. It wasn't worship but time spent with a friend you admired so much you needn't speak for fear of missing something.
It wasn't a "real" friendship in the Nurse Betty sense of that delusional association that can bridge in neurotic mind. I wasn't going to camp outside his home for chance of a viewing. But with all associations we make whether in person or anonymously from afar some version of a dialogue is created "as if" you were in their company.
I recall the massive funeral service (nay, celebration) when Jim Henson died. Thousands jamming into that church to share something with others. Then after his wife and children took to the stage to testify to the man he was something took over. His fellow artists and friends came up with some of their respective characters from his shows. They began to sing a song called "Just One Person" and one voice added to another and soon the whole church was in unison in song and tears. They were sharing their dialogues with us.
Yes, I cried. I'm still getting goose bumps writing about it. I didn't know Jim and I never will but his voice was alive inside of mine "as if" we shared some sublime conversation about the way things should be.
I think that's why I make art and I'll cry if I want to.
RIP Gene Wilder, David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Carrie Fisher, Gary Shandling, Garry Marshall, Edward Albee, George Michael, Peter Shaffer and so many others.